Each summer, The Economist hosts a Media Lab session in its New York office. The purpose of this session is to experiment with new technologies and storytelling tools, as well as to push the newspaper in new and sometimes unexpected directions.

Contributing fellows come from a range of backgrounds and work closely with the new product development team and journalists to build mock-ups and prototypes as part of the newspaper’s overall approach to innovation.

Objectives range from the strategic (reaching younger audiences) to the technical (machine learning techniques), but invariably result in more ideas than we could possibly see through to public release.

Our 2015 Lab on Virtual Reality, however, offers one example of how the Lab’s organic, exploratory approach successfully led The Economist toward a content programme and product releases on multiple app and video platforms.

That year, alongside Lab fellows Ziv Schneider and Laura Chen, adviser Kel O’Neill, and the non-profit group Rekrei, we began work on “RecoVR: Mosul, a collective reconstruction.

“RecoVR: Mosul” takes viewers on a virtual tour of the Mosul Museum, which until recently was under the control of Islamic State (IS). This story highlights artifacts destroyed by IS, which are digitally reconstructed by the Rekrei community using photogrammetry. The full story of the collaboration, including the wider issues raised by digital reconstructions, was featured on The Economist Web site.

RecoVR: Mosul was an Economist Virtual Reality video that took viewers inside the Mosul Museum.
RecoVR: Mosul was an Economist Virtual Reality video that took viewers inside the Mosul Museum.

An interactive prototype of “RecoVR: Mosul” for Samsung Gear VR premiered as part of the DocLab: Seamless Reality programme at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2015.

We then began a period of learning and iteration with our VR partner, Visualise. Based on feedback from the festival and elsewhere, we made editorial changes such as simplifying the voiceover from interview-style to single-narrator and removing the ability to move freely around the museum.

Visualise worked to more fully realise the museum environment and to overcome the technical challenges that go with showing high-quality VR/360 video on a wide range of devices.

The updated version of “RecoVR: Mosul” was released in May 2016 for Google Cardboard (both iOS and Android) and as a 360-video on YouTube and Facebook. It went on to win several awards, including the Jury Prize for Great Innovation at the 2016 BIMA Awards and the Best Use of VR at the 2016 Drum DADI Awards.

From a storytelling perspective, “RecoVR: Mosul” represented a perfect confluence of subject matters covered by Economist journalists: global conflict, cultural heritage, and technology. It also met our threshold requirement for using VR/360 by doing something that video alone could not do: It let viewers experience a place they would not ordinarily be able to visit in real life.

A second prototype from the 2015 Lab, a VR version of our Big Mac Index, explored ways to present data in VR. Explanation of complex matters through data visualisation is at the core of Economist journalism and an area where we hope to expand our VR grammar very soon.

Following the release of “RecoVR: Mosul” the Media Lab turned its attention to adapting another of the newspaper’s signature written formats — the leader — for VR.

Oceans VR: Net Positive” was produced in conjunction with Object Normal. It takes viewers inside the argument for ending overfishing on the high seas from the viewpoints of the people (and the fish) most affected. It was first shown at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia, in September 2016, and was an official selection of the 54th New York Film Festival’s Convergence track.

Meanwhile, the team at Economist Films (with production partners Visualise and Parable) began exploring ways of using 360-video as part of their standard 2D series, which included:

  • “Passport: Osaka,” part of the Passport travel series of the same name, tours a fish market, tattoo studio, and sento bathhouse (among other locations) in Osaka, Japan.
  • “Ocean: The Mystery Corals,” part of the Ocean series, takes viewers to the thriving coral reefs of Palau to find out what lessons might be drawn from the work of researchers there.

Both of these examples hint at VR/360 as a tool for telling a larger story, turning fully immersive only as the experience requires.

The challenges of producing VR/360 content are well-documented:

  • How do we produce, or at least prototype, at a lower cost?
  • How do we enable or shift the balance toward more immersive interactions that better deliver on the promise of sending viewers to places they otherwise would not be able to go?
  • And ultimately, is there a sustainable business model?

Ocean: The Mystery Corals,” for example, was part of an Economist Films series sponsored by Blancpain, pointing to one possible model for funding future VR projects.

The Media Lab and Economist Films will continue to tackle these and other questions in the years ahead. Later this year, we’ll be looking at conversational user interfaces, specifically voice. If you have a brilliant idea or are interested in joining us, shoot me an e-mail.

In the meantime, all our VR experiences are available in the Economist VR apps for iOS, Android, and Samsung Gear VR. They are also available on YouTube and Littlstar. We hope you enjoy our first experiments in VR, as well as those to come.